Would anyone today want to see a musical that blends elements of comedy and tragedy, set during a now-long-ago war and dealing with the possibility of interracial marriage? Would anyone have wanted to see it in 1949, when it first opened and the war was still a recent memory? The answer to both questions is obviously a resounding “Yes!” when that musical is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC. The current production of this classic by the Moorestown Theater Company at Moorestown Upper Elementary School reminds us of its greatness. It provides nostalgia for older audience members and a new experience for the present generation, who probably don’t even remember M*A*S*H*.
SOUTH PACIFIC, based on stories from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, won ten Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its songs are among the best ever written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, from fun songs like “There Is Nothin’ like a Dame” and “Honey Bun” to romantic ones like “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger than Springtime.”
In case there’s anyone who doesn’t know, the play takes place during World War II on a tropical island where U.S. Navy sailors, Seabees and nurses are stationed. Nellie Forbush, a delightful girl-next-door type Navy nurse from Little Rock, becomes romantically involved with a middle-aged but handsome French planter, Emile de Becque, but has some doubts because she knows nothing about his mysterious past. Meanwhile, the sailors on the island are bored with life without female companionship (the nurses are officers and off limits). They amuse themselves by teasing Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese woman who tries to sell them grass skirts and shrunken heads as souvenirs. She has competition from enterprising Seabee Luther Billis, who imitates her wares. A young Marine, Lieutenant Joseph Cable, arrives at the island, hoping to persuade Emile de Becque to accompany him on a dangerous spy mission because of his knowledge of the area. Bloody Mary thinks Cable is “saxy” and invites him to her home island, Bali Ha’i. Billis persuades Cable to lead an expedition there because he, Billis, wants to see the “Boar’s Tooth Ceremony,” in which the native girls dance topless. Once they are on the island, Bloody Mary introduces Cable to her beautiful daughter, Liat, and the two young people fall in love. As for Billis—well, you’ll find out.
Nellie is asked by commanding officer Captain Brackett to find out more about de Becque, and she reluctantly agrees, but on her next visit with the Frenchman she is shocked to find that he has two children by a Polynesian woman, now deceased. Both she and Lieutenant Cable are afraid to “follow their hearts” because they know the prejudice they would face from the folks back home. Cable sings that “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” to hate and fear people who are different from you. (Some influential people found this song controversial and even pro-Communist, but the authors steadfastly refused to delete it.) Cable and de Becque leave on their dangerous mission. To tell more would reveal too much if you’re not familiar with the story.
The cast rises to the considerable challenge of this show with great energy and talent. Some of the roles are double-cast. On opening night, Nellie was played winsomely by Jaime Geddes. Her alternate is Carol Ann Murray. Emile was played with Gallic charm by Tom McHale (alternate Mark Pinzur). Both have strong, expressive singing voices. Local ABC/Channel 6 newscaster Rick Williams plays the comic character Billis and displays a fine flair for comedy and song. The audience loved him and Bloody Mary (Debbi Nanni-Zacher). Steve Gionta is a strong Lieutenant Cable and Rebecca Ingram a lovely Liat. These last four appear in all performances.
Special acknowledgements must go to producer/director Mark Morgan, the orchestra, and all the production staff. There were few opening-night glitches, and if some scene changes took a long time, this will probably be remedied. The stage is almost twice as wide as most school stages, and the scene changes are not easy.
Be sure to remember that curtain time is 7 pm rather than the usual 8 pm because of the length of the show. This doesn’t mean that it is too long—every minute is worth seeing. After 62 years, SOUTH PACIFIC still reminds us that war is hell even in a tropical paradise, and that love sees no age, color or cultural differences. If only we all could see the same.
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Mark Morgan
November 11-19, 2011
Moorestown Theater Company
Moorestown Upper Elementary School
325 Borton Landing Road
Moorestown, NJ 08057